A Star is Born is a woozy melodrama about a romance between two musicians, one on the rise, the other reaching the end of his career. As a narrative that understands time as a cycle, the film is also shot through with ideas from the book of Ecclesiastes. To add a couplet to Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die,” a time for fame and a time to fall out of fame.
Ally (Lady Gaga) is a waitress and a singer who writes her own songs and plays piano. Toiling in obscurity, she’s all but given up on her dreams of becoming a musician. She’s shy about singing her own songs in front of others, because she’s been turned down by people from the music industry before. Her own father (Andrew Dice Clay) talks about musical careers as a matter of chance, comparing himself to Frank Sinatra; both he and Sinatra could sing, but only Sinatra became famous. As Ecclesiastes’ Teacher says: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
Ally doesn’t know it, but she has her entire career as a music star ahead of her. Jack (Bradley Cooper) can see Ally’s potential, and he’s captivated by it. His own star is fading. He’s been famous for years as a roots rock singer, but time and addiction and playing gigs night after night without protecting his hearing have taken their toll. Jack feels like the Teacher who speaks throughout Ecclesiastes. One of his songs opens with the line, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” a suggestion to keep moving forward and an echo of Ecclesiastes 7:10: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”
To Jack, everything is meaningless. He has to get high before going on stage at every show, and he always gets drunk after performing. The joy has been sucked out of fame, sapped by the long hours on the road and the fans who think they’re just asking for a picture, but who could be one of dozens of people in a single day. For Jack, fame is no longer something to be enjoyed, but endured. He’s past his prime and he seems to know it, but he’s not willing to fully acknowledge it. To acknowledge his own decline would be to acknowledge the passage of time and the inevitability of the end.
This all changes when Jack meets Ally in a bar as she’s performing. He can’t keep his eyes off her—she’s a great performer—and when she’s done, he talks his way backstage and asks if she wants to get a drink. She’s skeptical at first, but after he plays a song at closing time, the two make a connection. Jack brings Ally to another bar, to a tour gig, to the stage. Once the rest of the world has the chance to hear Ally sing, there’s no going back. It’s Ally’s time to rise.
And rise she does. Her music sounds different than Jack’s—he’s more of a rocker, she’s a pop star—but the notes are the same. Ally’s swept up in the wonder of being in love, terrified at first of getting on stage, nervous and unsure of herself in the recording booth. Jack has to keep reminding her to slow down and enjoy the ride, because he’s been there before too. He can see the road ahead for Ally, because it’s the same road he’s traveled in his own past. In the words of the Teacher, “You who are young, be happy while you are young … for youth and vigor are meaningless.”
To Jack, everything is meaningless.
Bobby (Sam Elliott), another musician who crosses paths with Jack and Ally, sums up their story in brief. “Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It's the same story told over and over, forever,” he says. “All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That's it.” Ally’s notes are Jack’s notes, just years apart and in a different tune. Her rise harmonizes with his fall.
Ally’s rise is due to a chance meeting and her own rare talent, which she’s cultivated even after realizing that her dreams of greatness might not come true. Her story is a melodrama, all heightened emotion and raw feeling. Ecclesiastes is an often-dour, unconventional book of the Bible, written thousands of years ago for a culture that does not look much like our own. Yet Ecclesiastes and A Star is Born both explore the question of what it means to live in the world, to take pleasure in the good things that the world has to offer, and to find meaning in one’s calling.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might,” Ecclesiastes urges the reader. Meaning, according to the book, comes from fulfilling the purpose God designed for us, whatever that may be. Ally does not know if she’ll succeed. She’s simply been given the gift of song, so she’ll sing with all her might. We should do the same.